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Nobody can seriously claim Northern Ireland is thriving in the UK

Emma DeSouza: With public services buckling, poor educational outcomes and no functioning executive, the union is an increasingly hard sell

The former chief ministers of the Isle of Man and Jersey have joined Arlene Foster’s pro-union Together UK Foundation as advisers. Established by Foster in 2022, the campaigning group aims to lobby on the benefits of living together as part of the UK. While the Irish Government remains resistant to recognising the machinations of a future Border poll, Yes and No campaign groups are already being established in the North. The question is: can unionists sell the union?

Foster’s group aims to a make a “positive” case for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK. But with public services buckling, poor educational outcomes and no functioning executive, again, that may well be a hard sell. The foundation has yet to publish any policy papers to make its case, but rather speaks loosely about cultural, political, economic and social benefits of being a part of the UK. However, across three key areas which are likely to feature in any pro-UK campaign, the outlook isn’t so bright.

When it comes to education, the high literacy performance at primary level alongside Northern Ireland’s ranking in maths and science have been cited as indicative of the quality of its education system. While Northern Ireland is a high achiever, Ireland ranked higher in the 2021 PIRLS literacy study. These positive markers at a primary level mask the downward trend of underachievement that follows in further stages of education in the North. A 2019 report from the Department for the Economy and Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre found that 30 per cent of pupils achieved fewer than five GCSEs from A to C, including English and maths. The report found that children eligible for school meals were more likely to leave school with lower qualifications, providing a window into the impact of the North’s class system of academic selection. These outcomes seem destined to worsen after a slew of education funding cuts was announced in May. A report from a group of researchers from Ulster University, Newcastle University, Queen’s University Belfast and Stranmillis University College has described the cuts as “unremittingly bleak”. They include axing holiday hunger payments, primary school counselling and schemes including Baby Book and Digital Devices, all of which will disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged children.

Northern Ireland’s education system is not just divided by class, but segregated by religion, with 92 per cent of schools funnelling children down religious lines. This division is reported to cost an additional £226 million (€264 million) a year. A pro-unity campaign that sells a single model education system that ends segregation could prove attractive to parents. Pro-UK groups could attempt to sell access to UK universities, to which so many of Northern Ireland’s young people flock in the so-called “brain drain”, as a benefit of the union – but Irish citizens in the Republic have the same access under the Common Travel Area. Northern Ireland’s education system is underfunded, deeply segregated and fails the most disadvantaged children, leading them down a path toward poorer employment opportunity and life outcomes.


Health is undoubtedly going to be the big-ticket item for pro-union campaigners, but Northern Ireland has the worst National Health Service waiting lists in the UK, a reality which has devastating consequences. A 2022 Belfast Telegraph report identified that more than 17,000 people died before receiving treatment over a three-year period. The British Medical Association Northern Ireland has warned that the health service is collapsing. The staggering wait times, which can stretch up to seven years, are forcing people to turn to the private sector. Kingsbridge – a private sector hospital – reported a 33 per cent increase in patients between 2021 and 2022. This isn’t a success story; it’s a tragedy punctuated by a further widening class divide in the North.

Despite these failings however, free-at-the-point-of-access healthcare will be a defining argument in a unity debate. There is a romantic attachment to the NHS and, if unity campaigners want to win the argument, they will have to provide more than a critique of Northern Ireland’s health service. They will need to offer a vision of an all-island healthcare model that either replicates free-at-the-point-of-access services or provides a viable alternative.

Then there’s culture, about which we will invariably hear a lot. More than 80,000 British citizens currently reside in the Republic of Ireland, while globally, 5.5 million British citizens live abroad. Clearly, residing outside the United Kingdom does not automatically diminish the identity and culture of British citizens. A further argument that could emerge is defence – Irish neutrality has featured heavy in recent discourse, while the UK by comparison is a member of Nato, but to what extent that argument would resonate with the North’s population remains unknown.

The real elephants in the room continue to be political stability and Brexit. Northern Ireland’s executive has been dormant for 40 per cent of its lifetime. The political institutions are simply not working and, in turn, Northern Ireland is not working. Brexit has ultimately shifted the narrative on constitutional change. No longer is a reunified Ireland about ideology. Rather it is about economics, opportunity and a return to the European Union – that alone will appeal to more than just traditional nationalists.

Northern Ireland is not thriving in the UK; it is at the bottom of the league table on household discretionary income and has the highest economic inactivity rate in the UK. It is not enough to offer slogans about Northern Ireland being better in the UK; pro-union groups will have to argue their case against a backdrop that indicates otherwise, while grappling with the reality that unionism is in political decline. The kingmakers in any referendum in Northern Ireland will be the undecided voters – the growing community who do not describe themselves as unionist or nationalist. More of the status quo or fear tactics will not win their hearts and minds – people want real hope and opportunity.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and political commentator